How to Become a Formula 1 Driver

By Jeff Gordon

Formula 1 racing is the pinnacle of open wheel racing. To reach the top, you must develop your driving skills on lower-level racing circuits while winning enough to draw the attention of the big racing teams. For instance, Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton was a 13-year-old kart driver when the McLaren Mercedes team brought him under its wing. Thousands of race car drivers aspire to race Formula 1 cars but very few get that opportunity. You must win early and often to beat those odds.

Getting Started

Road course racing is extremely difficult. You can learn the shifting and steering basics by attending driving schools to sharpen your skills. The fastest path to Formula 1 is through the developmental programs operated by the big racing teams. They scout, teach and nurture top driving prospects. Your first rung on the open wheel racing ladder is kart racing. Lewis Hamilton began kart racing as an 8-year-old and became the world's top kart driver by the time he was 15.

Skill Development

You learn to race by racing. Gaining experience on the track is the primary method of development. Driver Fernando Alonso logged thousands of invaluable miles as a test driver for Renault in 2002 before hitting it big in Formula 1 the next year. Teenage drivers who land spots in racing team developmental programs can use racing simulators to hone their skills without risking equipment or their own safety on the track. But legendary driver Jacques Villeneuve wonders if these development programs are the best avenue. “It’s not because you take a young driver that he will be a champion,” he told the New York Times. “He’s not a man yet. You don’t know how he will evolve. Maybe he is fast, but you don’t know how he will be in his mind as he grows. And you are not going to make him strong in the head. To be strong in the head, you have to be alone, and be left to take care of yourself, and drag yourself through the difficulties.”

Mental Training

Formula 1 racing is a series of split-second decisions. You must remain calm, confident and decisive. Hamilton has worked extensively with sports psychologist Dr. Kerry Spackman to sharpen his reactions. "Most people learn their skills as a race driver by trial and error and they arrive at the elite level with their skills honed by chance," Spackman told 888.com. "My idea is to break down their performance into sub-components, analyze it and see what you can improve."

Rising Toward Formula 1

There are many developmental and intermediate racing circuits between karting and Formula 1. For instance, Hamilton won in Formula Renault, Formula Three and the GP2 circuit before reaching the top. Driver Romain Grosjean's deliberate climb illustrates the challenge: two years in the French and European Renault Formula circuits, two years in Formula Three, then a year in the GP2 Asia circuit while test driving for Renault before getting his first taste of Formula 1 as the third driver for Renault in 2009. But then he spent two more years racing intermediate circuits (Auto GP, FIA GP, 24-hour races, GP2, GP2 Asia) and test driving for Renault before sticking in the Formula 1 circuit in 2012.

Graduation

To secure one of the coveted Formula 1 team spots, the driver must develop a polished persona to go with his skill and mental toughness. You must work well with sponsors and excel at public relations. “You cannot only have the talent,” fledgling Formula 1 driver Esteban Gutierrez told The New York Times. “You have to develop your skills not only on the driving side, but on the technical side, on the public relations side, on the sponsorship side, everywhere. It includes the whole package and you have to be sure that when you reach the top level you have all of these complements pretty well settled.”

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